During a recent lunch hour in New York, a sea of office workers filled the Hudson Eats food court, where staff prepared pizza, barbecue and chopped salad orders at incredible speed.
Many people had ordered ahead by app, while credit cards dominated the other purchases. And at least two establishments refused cash altogether – as Nicholas Duggan discovered to his dismay when he pulled out dollars to pay for his burrito.
“I was very taken aback,” said the 29-year-old construction worker. “Luckily I had my card on me.”
Once dominant, cash has been steadily overtaken by credit cards and a growing number of electronic and mobile options. Some countries, including the US, are even toying with plans for digital currencies.
However, a growing number of places in the US are pushing back.
In January, New York City passed a law requiring businesses to accept dollar bills. The measure followed similar steps in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and New Jersey.
Several other cities, including Washington DC, are considering similar moves and Congress recently heard comments about a country-wide proposal.
Americans used cash for an estimated 26% of transactions last year, down from 40% in 2012, according to surveys by the US central bank.
The decline is not unique to the US. In the UK, the proportion of cash payments has dropped by more than half since 2008, sinking from 60% to 28% in 2018. In Sweden, cash accounts for just 6% of transactions, down from more than 35% in 2012.
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The move away from cash has been a bonanza for credit card companies and newer firms such as Square, which handle electronic transactions. Consulting firm McKinsey expects revenue in the global payments industry to grow 6% annually over the next five years, to more than $2.7 trillion.
But about 6.5% of American households do not even have bank accounts – let alone “digital wallets”, according to the most recent US government estimates. That compares to less than 2% in the UK, and less than 1% in Sweden.
Studies show low income households in the US are much more likely to pay by cash.
Will Buie, 41, an oral historian who lives in New Jersey, said he feels restaurants with cashless policies are “putting up a class barrier”.
If you have money, he said, “Why be limited in terms of what you can buy?”
New York City Council member Ritchie Torres, who sponsored New York’s law, said his goal was to protect people without access to bank accounts or credit cards against discrimination.
Cash also works in an emergency when the power is out and preserves privacy in an era when credit card companies and others widely share shopper histories, said Jay Stanley, a privacy expert at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has lobbied in favour of the new laws.
Mr Stanley says he thinks the new laws should be seen in the context of rising public concern about privacy and big tech.
“I think people understand that removing cash as an option will disempower them at some level,” he said. “We can act on convenience minute-by-minute and yet still have a larger vision for the kind of society we want.”
‘Future of currency’
Businesses that have gone cashless say they’re formalising what most of their customers do anyway.
They argue that making the switch official is speedier for consumers, safer for staff, and less expensive, since it eliminates the costs of laborious end-of-day cash register counting.
“It’s clear that the future of currency is electronic,” Leo Kremer, co-founder of Dos Toros, a cashless taqueria chain, told New York City Council last year.
In his testimony, Mr Kremer said that he sympathised with the bill’s intent, but it wasn’t fair to hold restaurants to a different standard than the many businesses – such as e-commerce firms – for which electronic payments are the norm.
“Let’s pull those members of our community forward into the modern financial system, rather than pulling the business community backward with a well-intentioned, but ill-advised and burdensome regulation,” he said.
Sarah Wafula, a project manager who works in Manhattan, says she hardly ever carries cash, since using cards makes it easier to track purchases. Many of her friends do the same.
“But just because you prefer it, doesn’t mean it should be mandatory for everyone,” she says. “I don’t think it’s fair to have people be forced to pay using one specific way.”
Even before New York’s law was approved, an outcry against cashless policies had already prompted some previously cash-free businesses, such as popular salad chain Sweetgreen, to reverse course.
Mr Duggan said he was prepared with card on hand for his second Hudson Yards visit. But even two weeks later, he still couldn’t quite believe a business had told him his money was no good.
“I thought that was pretty wild,” he said. “It’s all currency.”